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Kennedy at Harvard: From Average Athlete To Political Theorist in Four Years

By Peter S. Britell

John F. Kennedy entered Princeton September 1935. Although both a father and brother had attended Harvard, Jack decided against it. He had not equaled his brother Joe's excellent record at Cheat and perhaps did not wish to be merely Joe Kennedy's brother at another school.

The future Senator and Presidential candidate spent only three months at Old Nassau. Near Christmas he concocted yellow jaundice and withdrew. The next autumn he came up to Cambridge along with the 938 other members of the Class of 1940.

September 1936, was a time of great excitement at Harvard. Dignitaries from all over the world had come to celebrate the University's Tercentennial. Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for a second term. The Nazis were on the rise in Germany. Loyalists and Fascists fought for control of the Spain that they had changed into a battlefield.

Times were ripe for student radicalism in an America and a Cambridge just emerging from the Depression. But John F. Kennedy was by no means a radical. He was just a nice sort of chap who roomed in Weld 82.

If he dropped any water bombs or if he concealed women in his closet, they made very little noise. His proctor remembers him only as Joseph P. Kennedy's son, a quiet youth who had no claims to notoriety.

At Choate Jack had evinced little interest in academics and much in athletics. At the College his first successful venture was in sport.

He won himself a starting position on coach Henry Lamar's Freshman football squad. The program statistics read: end--19--6:1--Choate. "The most adept pass catcher was John Kennedy, but his lack of weight was a drawback," wrote the coach in his post-season review.

Jack played only one more year of football. His favorite sport was and always had been swimming. At the November time-trials his backstroke earned him a place on what, at the time, was the greatest Freshman team in Harvard history. The regular medley trio of Kennedy, Bob Urquhart, and Bill Rines consistently brought home the needed points and helped win the Yale meet, 42 to 33.

After swimming season, Jack focused his attention on campus politics. The new semester had brought with it the elections for president of the Freshman Class. Kennedy decided to run.

Lost First Election

When primary day arrived, campaign signs for 35 candidates dotted the lobby of the Union. Of those 35, six would remain after the first ballot. John F. Kennedy did not qualify among that six. The Class of '40 elected as its first president James D. Lightbody of Glencoe, Ill.

Kennedy's second venture into politics was more successful. He was elected chairman of the Freshman smoker committee.

"Elaborate plans have been made for the Smoker," declared the Freshman Red book. "The main feature will be Gertrude Nieces, the popular New York singer, backed up by a cast of forty entertainers. To add to the splendor of the party, Memorial Hall has been engaged as the place, two and free food, tobacco, and ginger ale will provide the rations."

With the bands and the comics, the smoke and the noise, the old Gothic jazz orchestras will furnish the music, structure must have seemed very much like a convention hall. Yet these were not delegates, but only enthusiastically partisan students, who were more, removed than they liked to believe from all national affairs.

During that winter and spring, politics continued to absorb almost everyone's attention. After victory in November, FDR pushed through his famous "court-packing bill" and added six justices to the Supreme Court. President Conant denounced the plan as "contrary to the spirit of a free, democratic country."

More commonplace controversies raged. The CRIMSON ran a poll on "outmoded" parietal hours. At that time, the rules required the presence of a second woman in a room where women guests were being entertained. Despite the ensuing furor, the regulations went unchanged.

Chose Winthrop

In March the time for Freshmen to select a House came around. As usual, the question of distribution in Winthrop arose. Wrote the chairman of the House Committee: "Last year Winthrop was lampooned as being the haven of the athlete. Although it is true that Winthrop is well represented on all the varsity teams, all the activities of the College are also represented." Jack chose Winthrop House.

At the end of his Freshman year, the drums of politics had not yet begun to beat for John F. Kennedy. He remained an amiable fellow, known as the son of Joseph P. Kennedy, interested mainly in athletics.

Jack toured France, Spain, and Italy during the summer and returned with slightly broadened ideas. He was elected to the Spee Club and the Pudding. He also survived a ten-week competition and become an editor on the CRIMSON business board.

Again this fall he went out for swimming. Harold Ulen, varsity coach at the time, remembers him as a good swimmer, but not an outstanding one. Jack was very thin at the time and had spells of sickness, Ulen recalled.

During one of these spells he was in Stillman Infirmary when Ulen was scheduled to hold time trials for the Yale meet. Jack's roommate, football captain Torby MacDonald, smuggled food into his room and then smuggled him out of the infirmary in time for the trials. Tragically enough, he failed to qualify.

Whenever news photographers took pictures of the team, they liked to single out Jack because he was the Ambassador's son. However, young Kennedy disliked such preferential treatment and always disappeared when the press came around.

Kennedy swam varsity for two years and earned his letter in the Yale meet of his Senior year. That year the team had a national champion, a fellow who won just about everything. Dick Tregaskis was later to win a Pulitzer Prize for his Guadalcanal Diary.

On Jack's athletic index, sailing had always ranked high. In June of his sophomore year he brought to Cambridge the MacMillan Bowl, symbol of the intercollegiate championship. "Competing against nine other schools at Wianno, John F. Kennedy and P. L. Reed sailed the Crimson to victory of some 15 points in eight races."

Aside from swimming, sailing, and socializing, Jack moved no mountains in his second year. Since matriculation he had consistently ranked in group IV and did not seem about to rise any higher.

"He could do what he wanted, but did not waste time on what did not interest him," recalled Arthur Holcombe, then associate professor of History and Government. Since Holcombe wanted to "broaden a bit" the Kennedy raised on Boston and Democratic politics, he assigned him a paper on an upstate New York Republican, Rep. Bertrand Snell, a major spokesman for the private power interests.

Though constantly exposed to Democrats (his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, was Mayor of Boston), Kennedy was not particularly partisan. He was for Roosevelt, Holcombe remembered, "but there was not much to argue about in those days--you were either for FDR, or you weren't."

With other Kennedy acquaintances of the time, Holcombe thought that Jack's brother would overshadow him. Joe was the personality kid who wanted to be President, while Jack, like many another action of a well heeled family, had interests that tended to detract from politics and academics.

Ray Colucci, who owns the barbershop in the basement below Elsie's, also said he could tell many tales about Joe, but few about the more reserved Jack. "When Jack was in the chair and you asked him a question, his reply was usually, 'mmm... uh huh'."

To barbers and professors he was amiably reserved. To coaches and students he was a good athlete, but not outstanding. At the end of his sophomore year he seemed to have changed little from the Choate graduate who had exhibited a certain indecisiveness concerning Princeton and Harvard.

On October 1 the Panzer divisions rolled into the Czech Sudation land. Anxious to see for himself a continent on the brink of war, Kennedy received permission to spend the Spring term in Europe. Staying at American embassies, he chatted with politicians and citizens in Poland, Russia, Palestine, Turkey, the Balkans, Berlin, and Paris.

From each capital he sent his father an extensive report on people, undercurrents, and events. At the end of the summer he came back to Cambridge for the last round.

Outwardly he had changed very little. A passage on the editorial page of the CRIMSON caused editors to speculate as to which of their number might be the protagonist. One of those suggested was JFK.


Dear Diary

Sunday: John turned out to be a typical Harvard glamour boy with a crew haircut, broad A accent, short trousers, and all the fixing... After three ales he kept mumbling something about sticking to his ideals and keeping away from the "wolff" even if it meant flunking out next semester."


(The "wolff" was the head of a controversial tutoring school operating at the time.)

Perhaps because he had spend the previous year abroad JFK never entered the ranks of CRIMSON executives, as FDR had done. He devoted most of his senior year to an Honors thesis founded to a great extent upon his experiences in Europe.

After two years of scholastic mediocrity, Jack had finally come up with a Dean's List average. His field was International Government, his topic: Appeasement at Munich (the Inevitable Result of the Slowness of Conversion of the British Democracy from a Disarmament to a Rearmament Policy).

Kennedy fixed the blame for the situation that had led to the Munich Agreement of 1938 on the same sort of complacency that he has criticized in the present campaign. The trouble lay, he wrote, not merely in "the failure to judge the dynamism of the German movement," not merely in "mis-judgement of the relative industrial outputs of England and Germany," but also in the "calm acceptance that the democratic way is the best way."

"They [the democracies] forgot to consider the advantage that geographic position gave England in getting control throughout the world while the countries of the world were still small warring states. They have forgotten all this and have been content to sit back in complacent satisfaction and trust that the virtues of their system of government will finally triumph over the menace of barbarianism."

In the thesis Kennedy exhibited a touch of the pedant, replete with myriad footnotes and obscure statistics. There were also a few flagrant rhetorical and grammatical errors: "Even Churchill's speeches... was not the vigorous demand that it was come to be."

However, the professors approved and honored Kennedy--Magna Cum Laude. Later, after some revision, the thesis, entitled Why England Slept, became an overnight best seller.

From an amiable but unimpressive athlete, John F. Kennedy had grown into a political theorist who had been able to see the makings of war. In June, 1940, he was admitted to the fellowship of educated men.

Said Ronald M. Ferry '12, former Master of Winthrop House: "Kennedy? He was reasonably inconspicuous. When he spoke at the House as a Congressman, he said that nothing at Harvard had been useful to him in politics."

Excerts from "Appeasement at Munich" reprinted through the courtesy of John F. Kennedy.

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